For world renowned athletes like Michael Phelps and Victoria Pendleton; the difficult transition of leaving workouts could be considered a cause of depression and substance abuse.
Once the 2012 London Olympics ended, Michael Phelps faced the reality of leaving aside his goggles, British cyclist Victoria Pendleton had to park her bike and Chinese diver Wu Minxia had to leave the swimming pool. After long years of sacrifice and absolute dedication, many athletes retired from their sport at the Olympic Games. Some of them have plans for life after sport, but others are moving into the unknown. The advice Michael Phelps, for instance, is not completely stop swimming.
Phelps and Pendleton retired in glory, with their gold medals as a guarantee of lucrative arrangements and future media appearances.
Other athletes drew themselves away because their bodies were -if you will- turning against them, as in the case of the British gymnast Beth Tweddle, who confessed that she was unable to go through another four years of training to arrive in good condition at the Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016.
Others do not even qualify for the London Games and had to move on with their lives, and yet others have had to move aside not by choice but because of an injury: American gymnast Shawn Johnson had to settle for four Olympic medals since she unable to compete in London due to a knee injury.
For all athletes, the transition to a life that is not dominated by training is a big change. And giving credence to the saying that goes “athletes die twice”, the first one of those deaths is retirement.
Studies have shown that retired athletes can suffer from depression and other mental problems and are more prone to substance abuse, eating disorders and suicide than the general population.
British cyclist Bradley Wiggins has openly talked about how his father Garry, a former cycling champion, entered a downward spiral when he left the sport and died in Australia as an alcoholic.
Sports psychologist Victor Thompson has stated that many athletes leave the Games without fulfilling their goal or dream and feel that they let their big chance go.
According to Thompson, many athletes feel they are not as good and fear failure. They struggle to appreciate what they have accomplished or see things from a positive perspective. They are their own worst critics.
Addicted to sports
Growing concerns about the difficult transition retired athletes must go through have led to the creation of several support networks in recent years.
More and more athletes turn to sports psychologists, many are trained to follow a career in television and there are counselors available to help them.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and various sports federations have programs to assist athletes with alternative careers which include being coaches, studying a profession, or becoming a motivational speaker.
Britain’s Kelly Holmes, 42, who retired from athletics in 2005 after winning two gold medals in Athens, created the organization DKH Legacy Trust to help athletes who are looking for something to do with their lives after retiring from sports.
Andrew Lane, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Wolverhampton in Britain, says that high performance athletes tend to put everything in one place when it comes to self-esteem and that’s not healthy.
He also believes the athletes are so focused on their careers that they do not think of anything beyond that.
Such concentration can be counterproductive, up to the point of becoming an addiction. An Australian study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, found that 35% of 234 elite athletes were”exercise – dependent” and abandoning that practice could generate them depression and anxiety.
This addiction could be one reason why some athletes attempt to return to the sport after retiring.
Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, winner of nine Olympic medals, retired in 2006 at age 23 and tried to get back in the London Games but failed to qualify.
Thorpe, whose participation in London was as a television commentator, advised Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time with 22 Olympic medals, 18 of which are golden.
Phelps has said he wanted to improve his golf skills after the Games, develop his charitable foundation and wanted to travel. Thorpe’s advice? It’s for him to continue swimming.
He said Phelps should spend three months after the Olympics to keep training, get back in the pool and work. Rather than leaving it all, the ideal is to let your body gradually get used to a regular exercise routine.
Trying to get back
A couple of years after the London Games, in 2014, Phelps came back from his retirement.
A DUI kept him from representing the United States at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, but after the US trials for the 2016 Summer Olympics he became the first American male swimmer to qualify for the Olympics for the fifth time.
Read Jason Hanold’s Here are the stories of 5 former professional athletes with degrees